Release Date: Feb 26, 2016
Record label: Sony Music
Genre(s): Jazz, Country, Vocal, Pop/Rock, Progressive Country, Jazz Instrument, Guitar Jazz, American Popular Song, Traditional Country
Throughout his prolific 60-year career, Willie Nelson has never recorded an album quite like his latest. Skeptics will compare this new LP, titled Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin, both to his 2009 collection of songbook standards, American Classic (both are composed of covers and have plenty of jazzy moments) and to his 2013 duets album, To All the Girls… (especially because spirited songstress Sheryl Crow was featured on it and returns here). However, Gershwin is distinctive from both of those recent predecessors, and even more so from much of the sprawling, twangy repertoire that has made Nelson a star since the '70s.
Willie Nelson may be the king of outlaw country, but the LP that made him a household name was Stardust, his quintuple-platinum 1978 set of old-school pop standards like “Georgia On My Mind,” “All Of Me,” and “Blue Skies. ” Blue-jeaned badasses might’ve sneered that their Whiskey River-running hero had gone soft. But it was a revelatory set, connecting Red Headed Stranger’s roughneck conceptualist to the prodigy traditionalist who wrote Patsy Cline’s 1962 hit “Crazy,” and then outwards to phrase-parsing croon scientists like Sinatra and master musicians like Nelson’s beloved Bob Wills, who gave precious few fucks when it came to genre borders.
In 2015, Willie Nelson became the first country artist to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, an honor so deserving, it almost seemed like destiny. Similarly, Nelson's reaction to the award feels a bit preordained: he settled into the studio with much of his band and longtime producer Buddy Cannon to cut 11 George Gershwin tunes. It's largely the same crew who were responsible for 2013's Let's Face the Music and Dance, the last all-standards Nelson release, but Summertime feels a bit different: more intimate but also more straightforward, swapping nods to Western swing for a conventionally jazzy swing.
Is the outlaw still having trouble with his tax bills? One is tempted to ask because it is far from clear why the world needs another set of songs written by George and Ira Gershwin, sublime though their compositions are. And even if the need is there, why have them sung by Willie Nelson? Yes, the old fella is still held in great affection by many and he has more than enough dedicated fans to make this release a success but Ella Fitzgerald set the bar for the material back in 1959 when she recorded the Gershwins’ oeuvre with Nelson Riddle and no-one has come close since. Willie’s battered old voice too often sounds strained and strangled on the higher notes.
Willie Nelson is 82 and has earned the right to nostalgia. His agreeably slight new release, “Summertime,” is a songbook album, a stroll through some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best-loved songs. Mr. Nelson apparently settled on this idea after receiving the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song from the Library of Congress last year, and there are worse reasons.